The castle many Americans are most familiar with is the one that comes before every Disney film. Castles herald a fairy tale with a happy ending, an architectural translation of a generic fantasy that has been embedded into our psyche since we were children.
No wonder we’re so obsessed with them.
As we get older, the truly fascinating nature of these structures reveals itself. In centuries past, they’ve doubled as fortresses and military barracks. They’ve concealed the secrets of some of the most influential people in history. They were built as symbols of wealth and victory, though their histories are often dark and violent.
Here are 13 incredible medieval castles you can visit for a glimpse into royal history.
Alcázar de Segovia, Spain
At the confluence of two rivers near the Guadarrama Mountains in Spain is Alcázar de Segovia, one of the country’s most distinctive castles. It is known for its unique shape — like that of a ship’s bow. Originally built as a fort in the 12th century, it eventually became a preferred residence for the monarchs of the Kingdom of Castile for much of the Middle Ages, housing notable figures like Queen Isabella I. After the royal family moved to Madrid, the castle was used as both a prison and an artillery school, before being converted into the museum that it is today.
Chateau de Foix, France
In the southern French region of Ariège, the Chateau de Foix was once a refuge for the Cathars, a religious group persecuted by the Catholic Church. The castle overlooking the Pyrenees is now home to a museum that documents the region’s past.
Pena Palace, Portugal
Portugal’s colorful Palácio da Pena is one of the country’s most beloved national sites, with history dating back to the Middle Ages. The structure’s red chapel, orange dome, and North African-inspired arches make the surrounding woodlands seem magical. The best part? It’s just a short train ride from Lisbon.
Himeji Castle, Japan
Himeji Castle in the Hyōgo Prefecture is one of Japan’s most stunning examples of feudal period castle architecture. Though the castle dates to 1333, its bones have undergone many renovations; today it’s made up of a network of 83 buildings. Known for its elaborate white façade, the castle is often referred to as “White Egret Castle.”
Malbork Castle, Poland
Where in the world is the largest castle? Malbork, Poland. The Teutonic Knights, a Catholic religious order involved in the Crusades, built this brick behemoth in the 13th century. Following the Middle Ages, the castle was home to Polish kings. Much of the castle was destroyed during the German occupation of Poland in World War II, though it has since been restored.
Hohensalzburg Castle, Austria
The Archbishops of Salzburg built Festung Hohensalzburg, one of Europe’s largest medieval castles, in the period of the Holy Roman Empire. In the 19th century, the castle was made accessible via the Festungbahn cable car, which climbs the side of the hill right to the castle. Distinctive features include the decorated Golden Chamber and the Salzburg Bull, a large organ of over 200 pipes.
Tintagel Castle, England
This castle off the coast of southern Britain is often cited as the place of King Arthur’s (mythical) conception. Today it is owned by Prince Charles and attracts visitors looking to delve into the area’s ancient past.
Corvin Castle, Romania
In the Romanian city of Hunedoara is a castle that, according to local legend, houses a few spirits with unfinished business. The Gothic-Renaissance castle — known for its tall towers, heavily adorned balconies, and broad windows — was built in 1446 at the request of John Hunyadi, a Hungarian military leader. Lore has it that 12 Turkish prisoners were ordered to dig the castle’s well and would only be granted freedom when they reached water. 15 years later, when the well was finished, their captors broke the promise, and many have claimed that there’s a scribbling on the well wall that reads: “You may have water, but you have no soul.”
Few structures from the Middle Ages survive, but this gorgeous castle endured wars with little damage — in fact, it’s looked pretty much the same since the 15th century, when it accommodated three noble families. Today, it’s still under the ownership of one of the original households (the Eltz’s), who have had it for 33 generations. And we’re not the castle’s only admirers: Back when Germany’s national currency was the Deutsche Mark, its spires featured prominently on every 500-mark bill printed between 1961 and 1995.
Eilean Donan, Scotland
In the misty shoals of Scotland’s Highlands is a small island called Eilean Donan, which is home to a castle of the same name. The structure dates to the 13th century, when the castle kept watch over the meeting point of three lochs. Today it’s one of Scotland’s most-visited spots.
Castello di Moncalieri, Italy
Before the Italian Republic, there were the royals like the House of Savoy, whose reign stretched from Piedmont to Sicily. One of their many abodes was Castello di Moncalieri, overlooking the Po River just outside of Turin. Originally a fortress built by Thomas I in 1100, the structure was turned into a palace during the 15th century.
Bran Castle, Romania
You may know this spot by its more popular moniker — Dracula’s Castle. Officially known as Bran Castle, the fortress was first built out of wood in 1212. However, it was quickly destroyed by the Mongols, before being rebuilt out of stronger stone a few centuries later, and it finally became the residence for Romanian royalty in the 20th century. It now functions as a museum, which documents not only the region’s history but also its cultural importance as the “home” of Count Dracula.
Cairo Citadel, Egypt
Head to Cairo for one more unique castle stop at The Citadel of Sultan Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin). Located on the Muqattam Hills, the castle acted as both a rather strong fortress as well as a gorgeous vantage point, providing royals with panoramic views of Cairo all around. The castle, which started construction in 1176, became the official residence of the rulers of Egypt in 1207. Today, visitors to the Citadel will find the Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, and several museums inside, including the Al-Jawhara Palace Museum, the Royal Vehicle Museum, and the Military Museum.